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Art in Scotland
William Dyce


WILLIAM DYCE, H.R.S.A., R.A.
Born, 1806; died, 14th February 1864.

Perhaps, with the exception of Edinburgh, no city in Scotland can claim the credit of having produced so many artists as Aberdeen, the very cradle as it might be called of Scottish art, and William Dyce is one of whom the old University city has reason to be proud. His father, Dr William Dyce, F.R.S.E., was a physician, and had his son educated at the Marischal College, where his rapid progress resulted in the distinction of M.A. gained at the early age of sixteen. Having resolved to become an artist, after a little study in Edinburgh he went to London, where he was admitted as a probationer at the Royal Academy, but left owing to his dissatisfaction with the instruction there.' In 1825, at the age of nineteen, he went to Rome on the advice and in company with his friend Mr Day of London, where he remained nine months, which were devoted to the study of the old masters, and then returned to his native town on account of his health. At this time he painted several pictures, the most important of which was Bacchus nursed by the Nymphs of Nyssa, painted under the influence, although not in direct imitation of the works of Poussin and Titian, which he had studied in Italy, besides decorating one of the rooms in his father's house with classic arabesques. He exhibited the Bacchus in the Royal Academy in 1827, and in the following autumn returned to Rome, where he remained three years, devoted to the study of the fresco and other wall decorations of the early Italian masters, imbibing much of the simplicity of their works. These works at that time formed the models for study by Overbeck and the other German artists then in Rome endeavouring to revive the ancient art of fresco-painting, for introduction into their native country. While in the great Roman city, he painted a Madonna and Child in the old Italian purist manner, which so excited the admiration of Overbeck and his Teutonic confreres, that they proposed subscribing for its purchase, under the impression that Dyce was leaving Rome on account of want of money.

He took up his residence in Edinburgh in 1829, where he remained eight or nine years, during which he painted a semicircular- shaped altar-piece of a Dead Christ, an Italian Beggar-Boy, a large Descent of Venus (which attracted considerable attention at the Royal Academy in 1836), Trudchen (from 'Quentin Durward'), and the important picture of Francesca da Rimini, besides the cartoon of the Judgment of Solomon, executed in competition for the prizes offered by the Trustees of the Board of Manufactures. The two last-mentioned works are in the Scottish National Gallery. The cartoon is painted in tempera, and was awarded a prize of 30. The Francesca da Rimini is in oil, nearly seven feet in length, and represents the daughter of Polenta seated on a terrace, with the deputy-lover Paolo,

"Of evil thoughts unheeding;"

while the half-length figure of the assassin Lanciotto, stiletto in hand, formerly appeared creeping forward from the right-hand corner of the picture.

Not finding this class of work receiving sufficient recognition, he painted several portraits, the earliest -of which was a copy of one by Lawrence, of Lord Seaforth, the father of the Honourable Mrs Mackenzie; and in 1837, was appointed to the not very remunerative position of Master of the Trustees' Academy. About this time he published a pamphlet, written in conjunction with the late Charles Heath Wilson, and addressed to Mr Maconochie Wellwood (Lord Meadowbank), suggesting a scheme for the improvement of the School of Design, in consequence of which coming under the notice of the Council of the Schools of Design in London, he was employed to act as secretary to the newly established institution at Somerset House. His connection with the Trustees' Academy thus only lasted for eighteen months.

After receiving this appointment, he was authorised by the President of the Board of Trade to go on a mission of inquiry into the working of Schools of Design in Prussia, Bavaria, and France. His report, dated the 27th of April 1838, and printed two years later on the motion of Joseph Hume, led to the remodelling of similar schools in London. He resigned this office in 1843, in consequence of his unwillingness to give so much of his time as the Council required, and accepted the appointment of Inspector of Provincial Schools, with a seat at the Council, which office he also resigned on the roth June 1845. At the expiry of two years he again resumed his connection with the Government Department of Practical Art as it came to be called, and was appointed Master of Design, other two head-masters being also employed. He had been called in by the Council to assist in the removal of the grave defects which had already begun to creep into the system, but threw up the office after a few months' trial, disgusted with the impracticable nature of the management.' While admitting his great abilities, which could not but be acknowledged, many have stated that he was impracticable, and would make no allowance for the opinions of those with whom he had to co-operate. Mr Richard Redgrave, who was early connected with the Department of Art, says that he was constitutionally unfitted to fill any position of joint authority; but if we investigate into the abilities of those with whom he had to co-operate, it might be reasonably concluded that the opinions opposed to his own were worth nothing, and much of the impracticability lay on the side of those to whom he found himself in opposition. The management of the Department of Practical Art had been at no time very practical, and is at the present day even full of grave and serious deficiencies, besides being as cumbersome as it is expensive and unsatisfactory. During Dyce's connection with the Department he superintended the getting up of a series of outline drawings of ornament, which the directorate of the Schools of Design still use and recognise as a standard work.

His practice as an artist, although thus seriously interfered with, was not altogether relinquished. In 1839 he exhibited at the Royal Academy St Dunstan separating Edwy and Elgiva; in the following year, Titian teaching Irene de Spilembergo; in 1843, Jessica; and in 1841, at the British Institution, the Christian Yoke. During his residence at Rome he had acquired some practical knowledge of the art of fresco-painting, chiefly through his association, already mentioned, with the German Overbeck and others. This knowledge was still further extended by his visit to Prussia and Bavaria, more especially in the Bavarian capital. The result of this was, that at the Westminster Hall competition he exhibited two heads executed in that manner, for a composition representing the Consecration of Archbishop Parker in Lambeth Palace in 1559. These two heads were mentioned by a German critic as constituting one of the most meritorious productions in the exhibition. This led to his selection as one of six artists who were employed to paint compartments; among the others being Maclise, Tenniel, and Armytage.

In 1846, in the House of Lords, he painted the Baptism of King Ethelbert; and in 1848 commenced a series of frescoes, which he undertook to finish in eight years, in the Queen's Robingroom; similar commissions having been given by her Majesty to Sir Charles Eastlake and several other eminent artists. Those which he finished consist of Religion, Generosity, and Courtesy, on the west wall; and on the north wall, Mercy, and the Court of King Arthur, the subjects being taken from the medieval 'Morte d'Arthur.' The series was not completed on account of ill health and other unavoidable causes, besides being dissatisfied with the selection of subjects. The House of Commons, irritated by the delay, loudly complained, and blamed the Commission for not hastening on the work. The eight years had elapsed; the full price of the whole series had been paid to the artist, to whom the clamour was a source of great irritation, probably increased by the wasting illness from which he was suffering. Finding his health gradually becoming worse, he wished to throw up the commission altogether, and in order to relieve his mind, offered to return the amount which had been overpaid in advance. A committee of the House of Commons was appointed, which overturned the engagements made between the Fine Arts Commission and the artists, and fully justified Dyce by increasing the remuneration of the others engaged.' His other works in fresco are: Comus, in the Summer-House at Buckingham Palace; Neptune giving the Empire of the Sea to Britannia, at Osborne; and the nine decorations in All Saints' Church in Margaret Street, London. The cartoon of St Peter for the last, as well as those for the decorations in the Queen's Robing-room at Westminster Palace, are in the possession of the Royal Scottish Academy. Along with these works may be mentioned his cartoons for the stained glass in Ely Cathedral, known as the Choristers' window, the subject of which is, "Praise ye the Lord, ye angels of His"; and another window in the Church of St Paul at Alnwick, in memory of the Duke of Northumberland, representing St Paul and St Barnabas preaching at Antioch, which was executed in Munich.

In 1846 he exhibited at the Royal Academy a Madonna and Child, which was purchased by the Prince Consort; in 1847, the sketch for the Neptune, painted in Osborne House; in 1848, Omnia Vanitas, and a sketch of one of the Arthurian frescoes; in 18o and 1853, different treatments of the Meeting of Jacob and Rachel; in 1851, King Lear and the Fool; in 1855, Christabel; succeeded by the Good Shepherd, Titian preparing to make his first Essay in Colouring, the Man of Sorrows, St John leading home his adopted Mother, and George Herbert at Bemerton, the latter being a fine work full of devotional feeling. As a pre-Raphaelite painter of landscape, he has left a prominent example in his Pegwell Bay, which was shown at the Leeds exhibition of 1868: a most exquisite study, full of beautiful and careful detail—flooded with daylight and a sunny effect of colour.

From what has been already mentioned, the general style of his work may to some extent be understood. He drew gracefully and correctly; his colour generally is tender and agreeable; not often aiming at the qualities for which the great Italian colourists are so celebrated. In this respect, however, few artists are so varied in their works. Passing from his admirable full-length portrait of Dr Hamilton, rich, dark, and natural, to the infant Hercules, which strikes a key of colour midway between Rubens and Titian; the Paul-Veronese-like treatment of the cartoon for the Judgment of Solomon; the broad, simply painted episode of Francesca da Rimini; or his small landscapes,—it is difficult to believe them the works of the same artist. He made some essays in etching, in which, had he pursued the practice further, he would have taken a high position. Comparatively little known are a series of exquisite small plates, illustrative of some Highland tales by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, wrought entirely with the needle, and left as the etching-ground had been cleaned off. They consist of groups of figures most delicately executed and finely drawn, with all the freedom, and more finished than many of the works, of the most esteemed professors of that exquisite art.

Among other attainments, this distinguished artist possessed an excellent theoretical and practical knowledge of music, having been mainly instrumental in founding the Motett Society, for the practice of old church-music, which has since been incorporated with the Ecclesiological Society. He published in 1844 the 'Book of Common Prayer,' with the ancient Canto Fermo set to it at the Reformation period, with an essay on that class of music, for which he received a gold medal from the King of Prussia, who was about that time engaged with Von Bunsen and Neukomm in framing a liturgy for the State Church of Prussia; and he also composed music for the old "Non Nobis," which was sung at one of the Royal Academy dinners. At the age of twenty- nine he obtained the Blackhall prize for an essay on Electromagnetism, which it is said he wrote on his return from Rome, when he found so little encouragement in his art practice, that he thought of turning his attention to scientific pursuits; and he also gave a masterly lecture on the theory of the fine arts in King's College, London. He was elected Royal Academician in 1848, and was a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

After a busy life of fifty-eight years, he died in his house at Streatham in Surrey, on the 14th February 1864.


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